43

Anvil of Dawn ended for me, alas, not with a bang but with an invisible maze that I just couldn’t goddamn figure out. There’s some kind of connection between pressure plates and the walls and for whatever reason I just can’t get my head around the exact nature of it–even with a walkthrough I’m stumped. It’s pretty much the last puzzle in the game–I’m at the end of it, but I just can’t get through and I’m not sure it matters enough.

I’m not sure if this diminishes how much I enjoyed playing the game–certainly there’s a bit of frustration in something which you just can’t beat. I’m thinking as much of Knock-Knock, which I owe Robb Sherwin a review of (guess that’s what I’m doing when I’m commuting today) and Eric Brasure’s tribulations with Dark Souls–he all but breezed through the game only to find the final boss impossible.

In the case of Anvil–in the case of all three games I’ve mentioned, come to think about it–there’s some thematic irony in leaving it unfinished. While Anvil isn’t going to go down in history as one of the great unsung game narratives of all time, the writing staff actually understands a little bit about Theme, and there’s a strong undercurrent of determination in the face of the evil–okay, sure, not the most original theme ever, but the game handles it well. Your land is on its last legs, essentially–you’re on the mission in a desperate attempt to stop the Evil Dude on an all-but-hopeless mission, and every encounter is a response to this, with your character often having to convince everyone else that the cause is not hopeless.

And there’s some unexpectedly dark shit: You pick your character out of a party of five possible adventurers, intending to set off as a group, but another character conspires to delay you for a few hours, the old “distract the enemy force with a small army and let one guy slip through unnoticed” trick. As the game progresses, you come upon the other adventurers, and they all pretty much die in front of you. You come upon one–a character that I’d picked in my first attempt–tortured and hanging on a St Andrew’s cross for fuck’s sake. It’s horrible.

And that horror leads to a very dramatic effect, an interesting one: While you also come across a few NPCs who’ve been brutalized by the enemy forces, you had the opportunity to play–maybe even did play if it’s your second or third time through–one of these other characters, and there’s a palpable feeling of there but for the grace of God go I. It also adds a not unwelcome note of fear to the proceedings: The character on the cross, for example, was caught and tortured in and is warning you away from the very next dungeon that you have to go through in order to continue your quest–and yes, it’s a fucking tough one. Without being overwhelmingly difficult–except for the final bit, it’s somewhere around Lands of Lore level–it manages to create a very brutal, very oppressive, very desperate atmosphere.

Yeah, I really liked Anvil of Dawn and I’m sad I couldn’t manage to beat it.

41

Anvil of Dawn seems to have inspired deep but not widespread love; there’s not very much written about it and even the GoG forum page has only one page worth of topics. GameFAQs’s message board has four topics, all of which are barely going through the motions, and one FAQ written by comic book writer James Hudnall, whose name I did not know until today. (Given Anvil’s focus on interesting monster designs, I can very easily see how a comic writer could become a fan.)

One of the more salient pieces comes to us from Abandonia, and it’s breathless as hell, hilariously so:

Now, where should one start to describe a masterpiece? I can’t think of anything about the game that could have been done better. If you don’t understand it by now, the game will receive a score of 5 – without ANY doubts whatsoever!… could go on all week about this game and its greatness, but I won’t. Look at the screens and download it at once. It is without a doubt THE best RPG I have ever played!

One gets the impression that the review was written by a small dog, and it’s so tempting to be the cynical bastard and point to a lot of things the game could have done better–Character leveling is almost an afterthought, casting spells is cumbersome, the inventory is unnecessarily complicated–but it’s the kind of review I can understand completely because, shit, if I had played this in ’95, when I was thirteen, I probably would have felt the same way about it. Many of the issues with the game come from it being 2013, come from the fact that, again, I’ve played Legend of Grimrock. I can see flawed if valid reasoning behind everything–the missteps seem made out of a sense of experimentalism that just didn’t quite work out.

I guess why I am enjoying Anvil of Dawn so much is that it seems to have been created with great love and care–it very much loves its player. The rhetoric surrounding AAA and indie these days seems to be that AAA is focus-grouped out of any teeth, and that indie is abrasive personalitites arrogantly calling for the death of the player. Both cases are expressions of an unabashed contempt for the audience–in the case of the former, that the player only deserves soothing pabulum and in the latter that the author is wiser and cruel. I’m punk rock enough to be equally disgusted with both attitudes.

And so to a real degree Anvil of Dawn reminds me that another, and–when you get honest about it–more prevalent attitude exists: Picking an audience you like and spending your time making things they’ll think are cool. Anvil of Dawn‘s 1995 release date–on Hallowe’en, we just missed its 18th birthday!–isn’t insignificant. It was released almost simultaneously with Interplay’s StonekeepStonekeep‘s 18th birthday is tomorrow, so perhaps we’ll just take both of them out for dinner over the weekend. They’re considered to be two of the last traditional grid-based dungeon crawlers ever made before the transition to full 3D free movement; Stonekeep and Anvil are the swan songs of an era that games like Grimrock and the upcoming Might and Magic X are deliberate throwbacks to–and god damn am I glad we’re exploring these concepts again. But they’re beautiful swan songs: They cap off the period beautifully.

I don’t know where the Anvil of Dawn team’s head was at. The game was apparently reviewed well at the time–but it’s not one that you hear a lot about. I have to feel like they knew, even at the time, that they were making one of the last examples in a subgenre beloved by an increasingly small number of people. You know, everyone who painstakingly mapped out every Wizardry game. People who’d cleared out World of XEENAnvil of Dawn feels very strongly like a gift.

 

40

I’ve had murder on my mind since, oh, let’s just call it March, let’s trace everything to Bioshock Infinite, that’s a fine narrative. Dishonored was kind of a first step: I distinctly remember a moment in which I got to see the spine of a guard whose head I’d chopped off, and that wasn’t something I particularly wanted to see, but DIshonored had some merit to it. Bioshock Infinite was Extruded Videogame Product, and while I can’t say “murder simulator” with a straight face, the story seemed like a half-assed act of self-aggrandizement designed to give a lame veneer–to pretend that the game was something classier than an opportunity to control a dude who gets to slaughter people by the hundredfold.

Look–Killing is Harmless is overwritten–its endless summaries and half-baked analysis seem more like a term paper written the night before, it’s padded using tricks that every sophomore knows, and one of its main theses–that one can be held as morally culpable for a videogame action as one can be for a real-life action–isn’t one I agree with at all–but it’s certainly one of the few pieces of game criticism to come out of that particular scene that’s remotely worth a damn: Whatever your opinion of Spec Ops The Line, Keogh’s question–why are you playing a game whose basic actions can be boiled down to “repeatedly murdering dudes”?–was posed prominently enough that it’s worth attempting to answer, and the realization that we might not necessarily be able to do so satisfactorily is significant, yeah.

I’ve been playing RPGs of one form or another for most of my life: Combat has always existed, for me, more as a series of numbers hitting up against other numbers rather than anything more visceral. It can’t be insignificant that I was such a Dragon Warrior guy–still am. Thanks to Akira Toriyama, Dragon Warrior has always had wonderful monster designs–many of which, especially the Slime, are iconic of the series–and so I almost get the sense that a game where you fight primarily humans, especially in a fantasy scenario, is evidence of laziness on the part of the developers. (The so-frequent zombie, really, is usually a way of avoiding the moral questions surrounding killing humans–zombies are soulless monsters and therefore “safe” to kill–without having to do pesky things such as using your imagination to come up with creatures.)

Monsters, not wild animals–there’s something as equally odious about killing a pack of wolves defending their territory as there is killing a guard who simply took the job because it had good insurance and would let him retire early with a good pension. Games have been experimenting with making enemies feel like people for years, as simple things like a wider variety of voice clips became possible; in the effort of games to embrace realism, you don’t necessarily want a bunch of enemies which feel like ducks in a shooting gallery.

I’m not sure I’m leading up to anything more profound than, I’m just bored of games which make an effort to bring the experience of combat into further realism. Anvil of Dawn is hitting this: The enemies are all gruesome and cool-looking monsters–a good motivator to move on to the next dungeon is to see what they’re gonna come up with next, which is something that’s entirely lost in the likes of Skyrim. The combat is extremely simple: You shuffle up to enemies, bop them on the head, shuffle back, let them miss you, then go back and bop them on the head again until they die. It’s not as quick as the fights in the earlier Lands of Lore, and its descendant Legend of Grimrock all but perfects the bop-and-shuffle–but I think it’s satisfying enough. The timing is different for each of the enemies, and there’s some basic strategy to learn, some of that certain-weapons-or-spells-damage-certain-enemies-better thing, but not that much more than that. You don’t even have to aim.

I guess it puts combat in a secondary role, and I like that. It works as a pacing device, as a way of creating an atmosphere of danger and dread, and as a way of worldbuilding, in a way: This isn’t generic Tolkien orcs and shit; Tempest is a fairly alien world, and its enemies are likewise alien. But the game is not about the experience of combat: It’s about the experience of navigating mazes. The mazes contain monsters, just as they contain treasures and they contain puzzles. And I love mazes.

I like abstraction, I guess. I want to look at cool stuff. One of the main reasons AAA has completely left me cold is it isn’t giving me cool stuff to look at, it isn’t giving me cool stuff to fight, but it’s asking me to pretend to be soldiers and murderers and, again, it’s not that I feel guilty about it, but I think it’s time to start being more careful about who I pretend to be. Maybe it’s as simple as I think it’s just nicer to pretend to be a hero sometimes.

38

Here’s how much I’m liking Anvil of Dawn: I’ve played through the beginning three separate times. I don’t do this: There’s a billion games out there and if I’m finding a game troublesome in any particular way, I’ll usually just move on from it if it hasn’t hooked me. Anvil is–oh, I think flawed gem is the best term for it. So far I’ve found a dozen things the game does wrong; it’s wonderful regardless.

First time I made it halfway through the first dungeon before deciding I wanted to rebuild my character. I traditionally like playing magic-based builds–although in my old age I’m usually opting for something a little beefier–and the magic system is…not great. In-universe, spells are cast with a series of arcane gestures; in practice, this means that when you click the spell icon, you get to slowly watch your character draw the glyph, then you see the spell effect slowly form, and then it misses because the enemy moved. In addition, the spell icons live in an area which takes up most of the real estate for the “turn right” hotspot, and so time after time instead of turning I end up casting a spell. There’s an option in the menu to hide the spell icons (and, in an awesome display of flexibility, all of the separate elements of the interface!), and that’s what I end up doing with a strength build. It’s much less frustrating to go into options and reshow them every time I want to cast something. (Allegedly, hitting V shows and hides the interface on the fly; I can’t seem to get it to work.) Playing as a strength build, it’s a much less tedious proposition.

Second time I encountered a glitch. There are a fair share of moving parts–perpetually rolling boulders which toggle pressure switches or just form traps–one of those boulders got stuck, and because I wasn’t staggering my saves, I had to start over. It’s the rare glitch which feels slightly like my fault: Anvil is fairly late, 1995, it’s considered one of the last great sprite based grid dungeon crawlers, and so maybe it’s not quite forgivable that there aren’t autosaves or checkpoints, but it IS an old-school game. The typical advice I’m seeing is to create a backup save at the beginning of each dungeon, just in case.

But for all of this, there’s a lot of charm and love to the game: For one, it’s beautiful. Corridors are fairly simple CG, and the outdoor areas in particular are artifacts from the mid-90s, which was the beginning of one of the ugliest eras of computer graphics in history, but creatures and characters are all done in gorgeous sprites. I cannot stress how much I am loving the monster design. I’ve talked about this before: Skyrim is a fantasy epic in which the team could not have been bothered to come up with any interesting monsters and so throws bandits, bears, giant spiders. One of the things I love about older fantasy games is that they’re not concerned with being realistic–more likely, the servant of the King WOULD be slaughtering poor citizens who, in their desperation, have turned to banditry–but are concerned with giving us Cool Shit To Look At. The second dungeon contains the most interesting snake monster I’ve ever seen: It looks like a regular rattlesnake, except instead of a head, it’s got a human hand holding a knife that it slashes at you. When you kill it, it immediately turns into an ouroborical circle and dissolves. It’s the kind of game that I bought because of the screenshots, which GoG chose wisely to showcase some of the stranger monster designs.

But two steps back: That first dungeon, the one I’ve played three times, your only enemy is a soldier. A very well-designed soldier, but there’s only one enemy in the entire dungeon. Strange decision. You’ve got to work for a while before you can begin to see the cool stuff the game has in store.

One of the oddest and most consistent areas of praise is the automap; it’s one of the finest examples of the form. It’s a very clear and elegantly-designed one; most importantly it loads instantly. There’s plenty of games like these which pair the map with a soundclip of taking out the map and maybe a little animation. In dungeon crawlers like this, looking at the map is something you do CONSTANTLY: Taking the second gets irritating. I’ve quoted this bit before, but let’s check in with Plotkin on the subject of interface animations:

…if you go to the inventory screen, the “cancel” button (returning to the game) runs an animation. The animation is about a second and a half long. This is about a second and a half too long. Quick, name an operation which the player is going to perform seven hundred times during your adventure game. Now, for twenty dollars: is the player (1) desperate to keep playing this game, or (2) desperate to see the same minor animation which he’s seen six hundred and ninety-nine times before? Think hard!

I know some of this has to do with the time it takes to load the interface elements, but that doesn’t make it less annoying–and particularly when games do that today, it feels like an irrelevant bit of eye candy. That the map–and all interface elements–in Anvil load instantly is wonderful–it’s a sign of care for the player.

Which is not to say that the interface is all great: The inventory is…odd. One of the reasons I haven’t been able to get too far into Ultima VII–besides my general distaste for the series which has as much as anything to do with being too young for the majority of the series and not imprinting on it at all–is because of its terrible inventory system, which basically gives you a series of non-grid-based containers and lets you dump all your loot in. I’m not sure if Anvil is directly influenced by it, but it’s the same basic thing, and it suffers greatly for not having a very organized grid. Looty as the game is, I haven’t found a major problem with encumbrance yet, but you do have to babysit what you’ve got. When you pick stuff up, right-clicking will drop it in your inventory, but it’ll just kind of dump it wherever it feels like; picking up only a couple items reduces your bag to a confusing state of clutter, and so every few minutes you will need to stop and just shove the healing potions to the side, put the weapons in your weapons bag, toss out any spell figurines you’re never gonna use, collate all of your amulets. Now, I don’t mind this. To a degree I like reorganizing an inventory, and a couple of odd choices aside–you can’t just open a bag, you have to place it in your hand and temporarily store whatever was in that hand in the inventory, which adds nothing–moving everything around is fairly quick and easy to do. Come up with a system of organization and just run with it–I guess you just have to accept that one of the aspects of Anvil is inventory management.

I’m not adequately conveying why I’m liking this game so much; maybe I haven’t quite figured it out yet. I love its genre: I respond very well to a maze filled with Kobolds that I have to best. It’s nice to look at, the mazes are cool, and I guess there’s the sense so far of discovery. It’s mentioned in the same breath as Lands of Lore, which, unfortunate as that series quickly became, has a near-perfect first installment; Stonekeep, which in many ways is kind of terrible but so goddamn goofy and exuberant that it’s hard not to love; and Eye of the Beholder, which I’ve never played but badly want GoG to offer. As far as these things go, that’s excellent company to keep.